You may have an elf on your shelf, but at our house, we have a slouch on the couch. That’s me.
I remember it so clearly, the shock I experienced that first Christmas home from college. There it stood: bright green, perfectly symmetrical, not tilting precariously in its base. My mother had succumbed to the allure of an artificial tree.
My mom always made fun of her mother’s tree: a fru-fru white flocked behemoth bedazzled with shiny purple and aqua ornaments. I always liked the tree, but never said so. I may have been looking through rose-colored glasses, but I believe Mootsie (my grandmother fancied herself too young for “Grandma”) had a pink spotlight bathing the tree in light. She always hid an ornament in this tree that made shrill bird chirping sounds, which set my dad’s teeth on edge. (He called my grandmother “Hazel” to her face, “Hazel von Hazel” to everyone else.)
I was surprised my father tolerated my mother’s surrender to the artificial tree. His own parents always had a real tree tall enough to brush the ceiling in the knotty-pine paneled den.
It was always an airy fir, so you could see all of the ornaments. My favorites were the kinds that were test tube affairs filled with red water that bubbled when heated by nearby lights. I also loved the ones that had little fans that twirled if positioned precisely above a big ole hot light, a light the size of a plum. When Christmas was over, my grandpa sawed off one limb every night and threw it in the fireplace until all that was left was the trunk.
And yet it was undeniable: In my parents’ living room, the site of seasonal bickering over the uprightness of the trunk in the stand, sat this perfect green tree. It didn’t tilt. It didn’t fall. It didn’t shed. But it also didn’t smell like Christmas.
I worried that my mother might be depressed, pining (pun intended) for me far away in Evansville, Indiana, worried that she had lost her zest for the season.
On New Year’s Day, she removed the tree skirt to reveal a nest of plastic. It was a dry cleaner bag which she pulled up to the top of the bush and secured with a twist tie. She carried the whole affair, the decorated tree entombed in the plastic bag and still in its stand, to the furnace room downstairs.
My mother had become her mother. Her conifer cravings were gone.
And then, I became my mother.
I don’t remember when I gave up the real tree. We had some beauties, I’ll tell you. Before we had kids, we had a tree trimming party each year where my friends strung cranberries and popcorn, hung the ornaments, and draped single strands of tinsel on the branch ends. A Jewish friend, Barbara Cohen, seemed to enjoy decorating the most. She continued to fuss over the tree long after the others had retired to the dining room and dipped into the spiked eggnog. One year as our guests enjoyed refreshments in the top floor of our bi-level, we heard a thunderous crash. The tree had fallen down. Somehow we righted it and tethered it to the wall with twine and a nail, and then Barbara redecorated it.
When we had kids, Christmas tree shopping became a family affair. The kids and I scouted the tallest tree that would fit in our family room with a vaulted ceiling. When we had narrowed our options, we all circled the contenders, looking for the one that was most symmetrical. Rick scrutinized our choices, checking to see how straight the tree was, because getting the tree positioned in the stand at home could cause an hour-long argument. We had three cats and two little kids, so we had taken to tying fishing line to the trunk in several strategic locations and securing the strings to the wall.
When the kids moved away, and I had to do the decorating myself, I found I focused on the end of Christmas when it was just beginning. As Rick and I fought over getting the tree in the stand, my head under a nest of pine needles, I was thinking about how those pine needles were going to clog my vacuum cleaner in just two weeks, and I knew we’d find needles in the carpet at Easter. So, like my mother, and her mother before, I bought an artificial tree.
Artificial trees had improved considerably over the years. They went together, one, two, three. The color was more natural, and the needles, once fluffed by tugging them this way and that (there were elaborate diagrams illustrating fluffing technique), pretty much covered the branches and trunk. When we bought a pre-lit tree, I became a born-again elf.
For about five years, I was satisfied with this tree. It took me hours to arrange the ornaments, just
so, hanging my mom’s handmade ornaments front and center. I hung red and white candy canes (what’s with the newfangled neon-colored canes you see nowadays?) and iced the tree with tinsel.
But then one year, something bad happened. I put the tree together, the A top into the B middle into the C base, one, two, three, and plugged it in. Lights immediately twinkled . . . on 75% of the tree, but there was a black patch in the middle . I headed to Krogers for a few strands of lights and made swift work of patching the void.
The next year, we lost another fourth of the lights. Last year, I had to string lights on the whole doggone thing, but of course the dead bulbs were still there. Despite my expert fluffing, I couldn’t hide the pimply effect of all those bulbs.
Two weeks ago I did an archaeological dig in our storage closet until the skeleton of my tree surfaced. The picture in my mind was like a flip book: dragging out the tree box, to putting up the tree, to taking down the tree, to dragging the tree back. When I found the boxes of ornaments, I envisioned myself rewrapping them in tissue two weeks hence. I heard the prancing and pawing of my vacuum cleaner as it sucked up ornament hooks and tinsel.
I shoved everything back in the storage room and slammed the door shut. Oh tannenbaum, we are consciously uncoupling!
My droll little mouth was tied up like a bow. My eyes—how they twinkled! My dimples, how merry! My cheeks were like roses, my nose like a cherry. I was liberated!
The hours I saved by not putting up the tree could be spent on the Christmas merriment I really enjoyed: sitting on the couch, reading a book, and eating Christmas cookies.
But then I made the mistake of getting on Facebook. Picture after picture of families chopping down trees, the red-cheeked tykes all aglow with Christmas spirit. Babies perched in pumpkin seats in the shade of luxurious tree branches. A little boy on his father’s shoulders, reaching to place the star at the top of the tree.
Then I went to our annual Christmas book club meeting at Judy Dixon’s. Judy Dixon is a sensible woman about my age. She lives alone. I expected a tabletop ceramic tree on her coffee table, but instead what I discovered was not one, but two, big Christmas trees, beautifully decorated with ornaments, lights, and gently draping ribbons.
I opened my door of my apartment and saw the pathetic sight of presents on the table, not under the tree. I had to admit it: I had evergreen envy.
I can imagine my children’s conversation:
Allison: I’m worried about Mom. She didn’t put up a tree. Do you think she’s depressed?
Stacey: You think she’s depressed just because she didn’t put up a tree? Seriously?
Allison: Maybe she’s depressed because I moved to Norway.
When I searched for photos of Christmas trees for this post, I found ones from every year of our marriage. The tree is the iconic backdrop for all Christmas pictures. So where will we pose this year? Next to the big screen TV? In front of the dishwasher? Beneath a tall lamp?
Oh, Tannenbaum. I’ve become my mother, and then some. I think she’d be proud of me.
The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.